Drug sentencing bill in limbo as midterm politics cripple Congress

WASHINGTON — The Equal Act would seem like a slam dunk even in an ill-divided Congress. The legislation, which seeks to end a longstand...


WASHINGTON — The Equal Act would seem like a slam dunk even in an ill-divided Congress.

The legislation, which seeks to end a longstanding racial disparity in federal prison sentences for drug possession, passed the House overwhelmingly last year, with more than 360 votes. . It has been enthusiastically embraced left and right and by law enforcement as a long overdue solution to biased politics. He has bipartisan support in the Senate filibuster and endorsement from President Biden and the Justice Department.

Still, with congressional scrutiny at stake and Republicans weaponizing a message of law and order against Democrats in their midterm election campaigns, the fate of the measure is uncertain. Democrats fear bringing it up could allow Republicans to demand a series of votes that could make them soft on crime and lax on immigration — risks they are reluctant to take months before facing the voters.

Even Republican supporters of the measure admit that putting it in place could lead to a series of tough votes.

“I guess the topic opens up pretty wide,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, a Republican from Missouri, who became the 11th member of his party to sign the Equal Act this month, giving his supporters more 60 votes needed to overcome the procedure. obstacles.

The drug legislation is not the only bipartisan bill caught up in midterm political pressure. A multibillion-dollar Covid relief package has languished for weeks, as Republicans insist review of the measure must include a vote on maintaining immigration restrictions amid pandemic that the Biden administration wants to lift.

Democrats are increasingly at odds with the administration over its plan to scrap the public health rule, known as the Title 42. A vote would underscore this division and potentially open up some of them to a politically difficult vote.

The uncertainty surrounding bipartisan bills is a clear sign that if legislating on Capitol Hill isn’t already done for the year, that time is fast approaching.

Given the timing, virtually any legislation that comes to the prosecutor’s office is bound to invite trouble. Even consensus measures are under threat unless enough supporters of both parties agree to unite to reject politically difficult votes that might lend themselves to 30-second attack ads — the kind of deal that’s becoming more difficult to conclude with each passing day.

There are exceptions. A request from Mr. Biden this week to send a $33 billion more in aid to Ukraine to support the war effort should attract broad bipartisan support and few disputes. Democrats are still hoping they can salvage pieces of a social safety net and climate package under special rules that allow them to move forward without Republican support. But that, too, could require a series of GOP-orchestrated votes to squirm Democrats.

“What hurts bipartisanship is that even when there is enough Republican support to pass a bill, far-right activists sabotage it to score political points, and stalemate prevails” , said Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and Majority Leader. “But there’s always hope that cooler heads prevail, and sometimes they do.”

Supporters of the Equal Act and other criminal justice laws said they hoped it was true for them. They insist they can still get their bill passed this year and the opposition will turn on them politically.

“This is a real opportunity for the bipartisan achievement of eliminating one of the worst vestiges of injustice in American drug policy,” said Holly Harris, president and executive director of the Justice Action Network and one of the main proponents of changes in criminal justice. “Those who seek to thwart this opportunity for 15 minutes of fame, five minutes of fame – I don’t think that’s going to be rewarded by voters.”

In a letter to Senate leaders this week, Ms Harris’s group and some 50 law enforcement, progressive and conservative organizations urged them to pass the legislation quickly, saying “we can’t miss this time to right this decades-old wrong.”

The legislation would eliminate the current 18-to-1 disparity in sentencing for crack compared to powder. This policy can be attributed to the “war on drugs” mentality of the 1980s, which treated crack dealers more harshly. This resulted in a disproportionate number of black Americans facing longer sentences for drug offenses than white Americans, who were typically caught with the powdered version.

As a senator, Mr. Biden was one of the champions of politics; he has since become widely discredited and he has disavowed it.

The United States Sentencing Commission said passing the legislation could reduce the sentences of more than 7,600 federal prisoners. The average sentence of 14 years would be reduced by about six years, he estimated.

Although Mr. Schumer approved the bill in April, he did not set a timetable for introducing it. Democrats say it gives supporters of the bill a chance to gain additional support and find a way to push the measure forward without provoking a battle on the ground that could take weeks – a time Democrats won’t. don’t have if they want to continue to get new judges approved and take care of other cases before the end of the year.

“Getting the opportunity is the challenge,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat and one of the legislation’s early sponsors. “We just don’t come up with many stand-alone bills that involve some controversy.”

Its supporters say they recognize the difficulties, but believe it is the only criminal justice legislation with a chance of reaching the president’s office in the current political environment.

“Of all the criminal justice bills, this is the one that’s set up to succeed right now,” said Inimai Chettiar, federal director of the Justice Action Network. “It won’t be easy on the floor, but I think it’s doable.”

Trouble is, the push comes as top Republicans have made it clear they intend to try to capitalize on public concerns about rising crime in the battle for control of the Senate and the House of Commons. Room in November.

The approach crystallized in their attacks on Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson during his Supreme Court Confirmation Hearings last month, when they accused her of leniency in sentencing. Given rising crime and drug overdoses, some Republicans say they also have doubts about the landmark First Step Act, a sweeping bipartisan law passed in 2018 that freed thousands of people from jail after that their sentences were reduced in an effort to facilitate mass incarceration.

Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and Minority Leader, this week took up his criticism of Judge Jackson and attacked Mr Biden for publishing his first round of graces and commutationsincluding for those convicted of drug-related offences.

“They never miss an opportunity to send the wrong signal,” he said of Democrats.

Senator Tom Cotton, the Republican from Arkansas who led opposition to the First Step Act, said he was in no mood to let the Equal Act pass. He said if the disparity was to be erased, the penalties for powder cocaine should be increased.

“My opposition to the Equal Act will be as strong as my opposition to the First Step Act,” Mr. Cotton said.

The legislation encountered another complication Thursday, when Senators Charles E. Grassley of Iowa and Mike Lee of Utah, two leading Republican supporters of the previous criminal justice overhaul, introduced a competing bill that would reduce – but would not eliminate – the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine. They said research shows crack dealers are more likely to relapse into crime and carry deadly weapons.

“Our legislation will significantly reduce this disparity while ensuring that those most likely to reoffend face appropriate penalties,” said Mr. Grassley, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee.

The Equal Act sponsors say they intend to move forward and remain optimistic about their ability to overcome the difficulties.

“We have an incredible bill, and we have 11 Republicans and people want this done,” said Sen. Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey and lead sponsor of the legislation. “Hopefully we get a chance to do that now.”

Ms Harris said Democrats must recognize that Republicans will attack them as soft on crime whether or not they act on the measure.

“They fear something that is already happening,” she said. “Why not dig in, stick to your principles, and do what’s right for the American people? Maybe, just maybe, politics will shake up.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Drug sentencing bill in limbo as midterm politics cripple Congress
Drug sentencing bill in limbo as midterm politics cripple Congress
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